Date of Award

12-2022

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Wildlife and Fisheries Biology

Committee Chair/Advisor

Robert F. Baldwin

Committee Member

Patrick Jodice

Committee Member

Patrick Gerard

Committee Member

Stella Self

Abstract

Large protected areas have long been the cornerstone of conservation biology, however, in an era branded by the human dominance of ecosystems, regional landscape structure and function are often a consequence of accumulated land-use decisions that may or may not include a nod to conservation planning. With underrepresentation of habitats in publicly protected areas, attention has focused on the function of alternative land conservation mechanisms. Private conservation easements (CEs) have proliferated in the United States, yet assessing landscape-level function is confounded by holder and donor intent, national and regional policy, regional landscape contexts, varying extents, resolution, and temporal scale. Over the last few decades, the use of conservation easements has proliferated and like other evolving concepts, it requires oversight and measurable evaluation in order to monitor and assess the usage and usefulness of the private conservation tool.

To that point, this study explored the difference in composition and proximity tendencies of privately conserved lands relative to publicly conserved lands, and to random, private, non-conserved parcels using a remote measure of naturalness, first in chapter one as a pilot methodology in two Appalachian counties, and then in chapter two on a larger regional scale with more diverse geographic context. After gaining a better understanding of trends in composition and the link to the regional landscape, chapter three investigated tendencies in maintained and varying land cover composition across CE parcels and over time. Specifically, land cover composition was assessed from the time of placement using the NLCD 2019 land cover epochs, and compared to land cover in the epochs thereafter. This examination leveraged the National Conservation Easement Database (NCED) providing spatial and tabular data for CEs across the U.S. and allowing for diverse geographic contexts and landscape matrices.

Variation in tests for differences, land characteristics, and human modification variables confirmed the significantly lower human modification of publicly protected lands, and opened the question as to the naturalness of easements in varying contexts. CEs in chapter one appeared to be representative of the mixed-use, rural-forested landscape rather than more natural land cover. Chapter two used the same methodology but expanded the geographic and landscape coverage resulting in a broader characterization of the composition of conservation easements, indicating that they were similar in naturalness to the landscape matrix to which they were located. Our findings when taken in light of other studies, suggested that conservation easements play variable roles in the extent that they conserve natural landscape condition and connectivity from county to county. Given this variable role, and that CEs are generally a random sample of their landscapes, chapter three explored the consistency with which CEs maintained the land cover composition in which they were originally placed. Approximately 70% of the parcels showed no change in land cover value for any of the points sampled, with nearly 94% of parcels showing no major change in dominant land cover within the parcel, across land cover epochs. These results indicate CEs are maintaining the dominant land cover they were placed in at least into the established NLCD epochs post-placement. Moreover, less than 1% of CE parcels showed a dominant land cover change into a developed land cover category, indicating that when there was change in dominant land cover, it typically was not into developed land covers.

Given the substantial investment in privately conserved lands, these findings contribute to a better understanding of private conservation within various landscapes, and across varying conservation goals, development regimes, and circumstances of governance. The opportunity to use science as a guide by leveraging existing studies to build on prevailing conservation tools and strategies has the opportunity to actively progress through the “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful” initiative. The January 2021, U.S. President Biden recommended a collaborative and inclusive method to conserving America’s lands and waters for the benefit of all people. Specifically, the challenge encouraged pursuing conservation and restoration approaches that are flexible and adaptive and that support locally led and locally designed conservation efforts, honor private property rights, and support the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners. The initial report on the “America the Beautiful” issued in May 2021 indicated that conservation easements be an important part of its implementation, by their very definition and structure support the emphasis on locality, flexibility and adaptive approachs. Emerging research on the effectiveness of conservation easements in meeting conservation goals, including this study, provide a needed framework for implementing the “American the Beautiful” program.

Author ORCID Identifier

0000-0001-5456-9161

Available for download on Sunday, December 31, 2023

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